As we hit the midpoint of the AppleTV+ series Shantaram, starring Charlie Hunnam and based on the book by Gregory David Roberts, the show’s stars are commenting on some assessments that this is a “white saviour story.”
Shantaram tells the story of Dale Conti (Hunnam), whose heroin addiction leads him to participate in an armed robbery, resulting in a police officer being shot and landing Dale in an Australian prison. In 1982, he escapes and makes it to Bombay, India (now Mumbai), under the name Lindsay “Lin” Ford. Constantly trying to find his “freedom,” Lin seemingly can’t escape trouble. He relocates to the Sagar Wada slums where, because he is a former paramedic, he becomes the “doctor” of Sagar Wada to help aid people in the community, but even that leads to more trouble for Lin.
When the book was released in 2003, it became an international bestseller, but some were critical of the book’s destructive “white saviour” narrative, an observation that has trickled over to the series as well.
“That observation has been made a lot, I made it myself when I read the book, we were all cognisant of it,” Hunnam told Yahoo Canada in Toronto. “We had the advantage of not having to tell this in the first person, the novel’s written in the first person so every observation in India, all of it comes from the perspective and experience of Lin, which puts him at the centre of every narrative.”
“So I think that we were able to mitigate that just in the sort of basic structure of the storytelling. Then we just did as much as we could to make each of these characters alive and stand on their own two feet… You'd have a hard job to claim that Lin is a saviour of this first season because he messes everything up. I mean, he's really the disaster. He's like this engine of chaos that goes through and everybody else sort of cleans up after him. So I hope that we've done a decent job sort of just modernizing and…[widening] the lens.”
Hunnam’s co-star Shubham Saraf sat with the story and his character Prabhu, who is Lin’s guide to Bombay but also his closest friend in India, since the actor was 15 years-old.
“I'd read the book when I was 15 and so it's sort of in me somewhere,” Saraf said. “I loved it, I remember reading it on the plane next to my dad as I was flying to Bombay.”
“When I devoured the book Prabhu was also my favorite character. He just leapt off the page and so, when I got the script through I was like, ‘I know what this is.’”
Saraf echoed Hunnam’s comments, stressing that he believes India gets to speak for itself in the TV adaptation of the story.
“I think in this series, in comparison to the book at least, it feels like India speaks for itself,” Saraf added. “I think there was a trick missed, through no fault of anyone's, it was the COVID, Delta pandemic and that meant that we had to shoot Thailand and Australia for India, often."
"But that idea of India speaking for itself exists within the frames, exists within the faces that you see, and hopefully if we get to go again, we'll get to go to India this time and actually film there. And that again will, I think, add a whole other layer to representing the biggest character in the book, which is India.”
Charlie Hunnam fought to go against gangster trope for 'Shantaram'
Shantaram very much comes across as a passion project for Hunnam, who hasn’t done television work since Sons of Anarchy ended in 2014. He was originally sent the book seven years ago and says it became his “obsession” to turn the story into a TV show.
Hunnam also stayed true to what he believed was the best character trajectory for Lin, including pushing back on the conflicting idea to introduce the character as more of a gangster, but rather playing into his humility, vulnerability and humanity a bit more.
“I had a very, very strong conviction that he needed to be a neutral, relatable, everyday person who had made one mistake, which has completely altered the trajectory of his life in a very negative way,” Hunnam said. “I had to fight for that because the consensus was, of our whole creative team, with the studio and everyone, that it was going to feel like a more viable piece of entertainment and sort of bigger stakes, or more sexy or something, if Lin was a gangster coming in, that he was already carrying the baggage of his experience in prison.”
“I just said, 'where do we go from that?'... I just want to be sort of wide open in a place where I'm vulnerable, don't have any friends, a regular person who's just sort of an outcast now, and if he'd already donned his armour, then that accessibility, I felt, wouldn't have been there. But that was a lot of fighting. That was a year and a half of fighting back and forth, to be allowed to play him as I wanted him.”
'They spend a lot of time not talking about men'
Another departure from the novel is that this Shantaram series allows the women to define themselves more, versus only being defined by how Lin sees them.
Antonia Desplat plays Karla, Lin's flirtatious love interest but also a businesswoman who brings Lin deeper into the chaos and danger he's trying to avoid.
“It was terrifying at first, coming from a book that is so loved and a character that is so intensely described in the book, there's a lot of pressure there to give her justice,” Desplat said. “But I also wanted to bring a little bit of me.”
“I wanted to make sure that I tapped into her vulnerability, because I think the difference between the book is, in the book, it's from Lin’s perspective, so he never sees that side of her. Whereas the audience in our version are our ally, in a way, and they can witness private moments and sort of the weakness of our characters that they don't allow the world to see.”
Elektra Kilbey plays Lisa, a sex worker who is battling her own drug addiction, and is friends with Karla. A particularly interesting aspect of Lisa and Karla, specifically, as the story moves into the second half of the season, is the evolution of this bond, as they navigate their personal problems.
“What I love about the female characters in the show is that they spend a lot of time not talking about men, they're talking about their own issues,” Kilbey said. “They're talking about their own inner dynamics, they're on their own trajectories, and have their own goals set that aren't revolving completely around the lead character.”
“I think that she's the most honest character in the show, pretty much, and I think that she wears her heart on her sleeve and just wants to see the beauty in everything… I think what's interesting about her arc, as opposed to a lot of the other characters, she starts at rock bottom and you can only go up from where she starts.”